Artists who are placed in the “contemporary folk art” category (next to self-taught, outsider, and visionary artists) are usually given more personal presence than their mainstream artist comrades. For example, a casual perusal of two representative art magazines—say, Raw Vision and Sculpture—reveals that critical writing about outsider art is mostly biography and mainstream art is mostly aesthetic and interpretive evaluation. The critics seem to believe that what is most interesting about outsider and folk art is that which has to do with the lives and personalities of its creators. So they seek out these stories and peculiarities and often place large portraits of the artists in their articles, portraits which often eclipse the work itself. One would be hard-pressed to see similar practices in magazines devoted to mainstream art.
Understandably, it is unusual to find a folk artist who takes matters into his own hands and actively creates a cult of personality around himself. But just such an artist was Bert Grimm, the famous tattoo artist who, in 1952, set up shop in the now-defunct Nu-Pike amusement park of my native Long Beach. The Pike (Nu-Pike after WWII) attracted a continuous flow of sailors, truckers, and other interesting folk to its rides, food stands, fortune-tellers, and tattoo parlors. I suspect that the old tattoo artists of the Pike in its heyday gave Long Beach its now deeply-entrenched tattoo culture and affection for those vintage West-Coast-style tattoo designs.
But back to Bert Grimm. Details about Grimm’s life are fuzzy, mostly because he seems to have purposefully imbued it with a certain amount of mystery. Basically, he spent his first and last day in Oregon and somewhere in between he was in Chicago, St. Louis, and Long Beach. But here, I won’t belabor suppositions about exactly where he was when and with whom. That’s for (other) historians to sort out. What I find fascinating is the mystery itself, and how he actively created legend around his name. Tattoo artist and Long Beach native Don Deaton, who knew Grimm in his later years (and was in fact a pallbearer at his funeral), reports that Grimm had a self-christened “famous ten minute speech” that detailed his illustrious career tattooing the likes of Buffalo Bill, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Bonnie and Clyde. As he spun out his tale to his enraptured customers, he would repeat his mantra: “I am the greatest. I am the greatest. I am the greatest tattoo artist in the world.” Word of this “greatest tattoo artist” spread like wildfire and soon hundreds were making the pilgrimage to Long Beach to be festooned with his designs. Today, he is still remembered as one of the greatest tattoo artists to have ever lived. He was inducted into the Tattoo Hall of Fame (then located in San Francisco) in 1983, two years before he died. His old Long Beach shop at 22 Chestnut St. is still in operation, now the oldest running tattoo parlor in the U.S.
So, there’s the artist, his legend, and his legacy. But what about his art? Bert Grimm and other artists created what is known as “flash,” that is, archetype designs that can be reproduced on a number of bodies. His flash can still be seen in tattoo parlors, museums, archives, and the internet. However, in themselves, flash designs are not tattoos, they are simply designs. Tattoos require bodies for activation; they require bodies to lift them from the realm of the flat and the merely graphic, to give them life and form. Furthermore, each body necessarily manifests the designs differently, according to skin tone, body shape, wrinkles, hairs, moles and freckles. The tattoo, like a piece of music, cannot exist separate from its corporal activators. Both of these are art forms that must be continually manifested by bodies.
And there’s the rub. Because tattoos must be activated by bodies, tattoos are by nature ultimately mortal. They require the movement of living flesh to give them motion and life. They need the pulse of hot blood to make them glow. They need the curvature of muscle, fat, and bone to give them shape. They cannot exist abstracted from their bodies any more than pieces of music can exist abstracted from their performers. Composed music is merely a graphic representation on a page until a performer lifts it into the realm of the aural, the performative, and the sublime. Each song dies when the singer closes his mouth and the instruments cease their vibrations, just as each tattoo dies along with the body that gives it life. As a tattoo artist, you must deal with the fact that your creations can never have the immortality of a Bernini or Velasquez because your chosen medium will not last like marble and oils. No one can deny that Brunelleschi has achieved immortality through the beautiful structures that still grace the Tuscan skyline. But how can the tattoo artist achieve immortality?
Bert Grimm actively created a legendary place for himself. If he could not live forever through his art, he could at least live forever through his cult. Indeed, even though his tattoos have passed on with their bodies, his flash designs remain, and they fetch top dollar. But the designs are seldom evaluated aesthetically; rather, they are placed in the context of Grimm’s colorful life, or rather, legendary status. He has created a brand name for himself: people still seek out his designs, longing to be marked by this man even though his hand hasn’t held a needle in decades.
Each new body that acquires his designs revives his legacy, and this is the irony: even though his art continually dies, it is also continually revivified. His legend has created the desire that summons activating bodies to his art. So it turns out that the art of Bert Grimm has, in fact, achieved immortality. But this immortality is not like that of a cathedral but that of a sonata: his art exists in graphic abstraction but is repeatedly manifested—performed even—by the bodies that are drawn to it.